Just days before Tuesday’s election, the two candidates for Peoria mayor are trading barbs over a lengthy campaign mailer one sent about the other’s record. “I absolutely stand by every word in my mailer. Every word was precise and accurate,” 4th District Councilman Jim Montelongo says of the four-page mailing that arrived for many voters
Just days before Tuesday’s election, the two candidates for Peoria mayor are trading barbs over a lengthy campaign mailer one sent about the other’s record.
“I absolutely stand by every word in my mailer. Every word was precise and accurate,” 4th District Councilman Jim Montelongo says of the four-page mailing that arrived for many voters within the last week.
The mailer challenges At-Large Councilwoman Rita Ali’s record on promises and mailings in previous campaigns, as well as questioning her experience for the mayoral post and taking issue with statements made in a debate between the two.
“He spent four huge pages of newsprint focusing on negative information about me rather than spending that four huge pages focusing on what he’s accomplished over 12 years on the council,” Ali told the Journal Star, also arguing that some claims are inaccurate or distort her record. “If you’ve done a lot, you can focus on what you’ve done rather than try to tear someone down for your gain.”
These are the claims about which they disagree:
Working to bring in grants for the city of Peoria
Montelongo’s mailer notes that in previous campaigns Ali has spoken of her success at Illinois Central College bringing in grant funding and her ability to help Peoria do the same.
“As a council member she has not identified a single source of new grant revenue for the city, has not written any grant applications for the city, has not offered any specific grants to solicit at city council meetings, and has not obtained a dime for the city in new grants,” it reads in part.
But, Ali says, “that’s not how it works.” Council members typically don’t bring up potential grants at meetings, nor do they write the applications. Instead, she says, she’s flagged possible opportunities, forwarding them to city staff in various departments that would be eligible for grants. Grant requests that are successful or likely are then brought to the council’s attention.
And, she says, from her perch as vice president of workforce and diversity at ICC, the college, the city of Peoria and Peoria Public Schools jointly submitted a grant request to the U.S. Department of Education for a $30 million “Promise Neighborhoods” grant to assist in a broad array of improvements in South Peoria. Those would range from early childhood readiness to financial literacy development, broadband internet, entrepreneurship training and academic success coaching. It’d come with a $49 million match for a series of local organizations and not-for-profits.
Montelongo says, though, that “what ICC is doing for Peoria that she feels she can claim some credit for is not about what she has done as a City Council member.”
Similarly, while Montelongo praises Ali’s work at ICC preparing students for jobs, he says that work does not, in itself “make her a job creator.”
To that, Ali says that while she serves as ICC’s representative on the regional workforce alliance, “everybody knows that I’m also on the City Council, so I represent those interests as well.” And, she says, her work with employers not only includes training for existing jobs, but also for building skills to create new jobs locally.
Montelongo also questions the difference between past campaigns, when Ali listed among her accomplishments obtaining $20 million for ICC and touting today a figure of $50 million, and whether those funds came entirely through her efforts or through those of many staff.
Ali says she leads grant work at ICC as part of her portfolio and acknowledges that the $50 million figure is reflective of not just her 17-year career at ICC but also for other public and private organizations.
The role of city government in private business
The two also dispute the intent behind some of Ali’s statements at a candidate forum hosted by WMBD-TV, Channel 31. At it, the subject was the failure of the Hotel Pere Marquette deal.
Ali said it wasn’t properly reviewed but wouldn’t rule out using city money to aid another private project. Montelongo believes city governments lack the expertise to do any such reviews and questions the fairness of a city government deciding which business to boost with tax revenues that may come from competitors.
“Having been burned so badly on the Pere Marquette deal, one would think everyone would have learned the lesson. Not Rita Ali,” said Montelongo, who supported the initial plan in a 2008 vote but later turned against it.
But Ali says she isn’t advocating another project and rather believes there have been successful, properly vetted instances elsewhere of public-private partnerships.
“It just seems very short-sighted to say you’d never invest public funds in a private venture,” she said, ruling out a blanket prohibition.
Is bringing passenger rail to Peoria feasible?
Ali has also been a proponent of bringing passenger rail to Peoria, something Montelongo says was determined a decade ago to be “beyond cost prohibitive” by the city, state and federal governments, with a 2011 cost to add a shuttle train to link to Amtrak in Normal estimated at more than $100 million. He also references a March 4 interview former U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood did on 90.7 FM with Roger Monroe, in which LaHood questioned the likelihood of federal funding and whether there’s a sufficient interest among passengers.
However, Ali points to the success in extending passenger rail to the Quad Cities area and says she raised the subject during the city’s August 2019 strategic planning session and later discussed it with multiple council members. She agrees it’d be costly — $1 million or more a mile to lay track, perhaps — but says with a federal infrastructure bill proposed late last month, “I think we should position ourselves for passenger rail in Peoria” to improve quality of life.
A failure at cutting property taxes?
Ali resists the allegations Montelongo raises that she’s failed at cutting property taxes in the city. That, she said, is not the promise she made.
“I have promised not to increase” property taxes, Ali says.
But Montelongo points elsewhere, to campaign flyers from Ali’s 2019 campaign with language stating one part of her platform was to “provide property tax relief.”
How much experience is needed to be mayor?
Peorians have elected mayors with varying degrees of experience. Mayors Jim Ardis and Dave Ransburg had council experience under their belts; Jim Maloof and Lowell “Bud” Grieves did not.
And Ali says Montelongo’s critique of her lack of government experience — she’s served two years on the City Council, he’s served 12 — is also inaccurate.
“I do not think even Rita Ali can say she has more than two years of experience in city government,” Montelongo said, and the mailer questions whether Caterpillar Inc., OSF HealthCare, UnityPoint Health or ICC would hire someone to lead their organization with only two years of work in that field.
But, Ali says, her resume includes eight years working on the city’s staff, 17 years working for another government entity at ICC, seven years of work for the state of Illinois and service on the Peoria Park District board.
“It’s not the number of years, it’s what you do when you serve,” she said.